This pedestal is not for cracking

20 February 2001

A reader has put it to me that Robert Greene, whose 48 Laws of Power I criticised on this page last March, gave undeserved credit to Thomas Edison, whom some of us revere as a founder of our industry. In Greene’s opinion Edison was a mediocre scientist but a brilliant businessman. My reader’s view is that Edison was not a scientist but a commercially minded inventor and development engineer: and that, as a businessman, he was well short of brilliant.

Thanks in part to the famous Wall Street banker, J P Morgan, says my reader, The Edison General Electric Co merged with its rival, The Thomson-Houston Co, in 1892. Edison and the other leading lights were outsmarted by Morgan and their names disappeared from the masthead of the new company, which we know and admire to this day as General Electric.

But is it not arguable that nothing less than the genius of the arch-financier, J P Morgan, was required to outdo Edison in business; and that without Edison’s fundamental technical inputs the new company would not have become what the Wall Street historian, Charles Geisst, has described as ‘the controlling force in electricity production in the United States’?

It is fashionable to retell the lives of great achievers with ‘warts and all’ comprehensiveness. Overdone, that possibly well-intentioned pursuit of the whole truth merely turns perceptive portraiture into crude caricature. You and I can still revere Edison, I think. And, if I am not mistaken, although GE is now mostly a financial services provider, it still produces electric lamps.

Now, after a remarkable two-decade reign as GE’s chief executive, Jack Welch is stepping down. He made the web a watchword. How will his successor, Jeffrey Immelt , contribute to the conglomerate’s history of techno-commercial invention? Everyone in the power game is agog.

Upstage an egghead

Eghotient phour cosptames mache leyeph happear. Yes, I do believe so: and no, I do not yet qualify for mental treatment. I am merely following in the footsteps of George Bernard Shaw, the writer whose highly successful play, Pygmalion, was transformed by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe into the even more highly successful mid-twentieth-century musical, My fair lady. Revenues from the latter swelled the bequest that Shaw had left for promotion of a new alphabet, which he thought would make English spelling rational.

Shaw’s enlarged arsenal of letters would, he believed, remove the confusion that could lead a person (but you and I might think only a computer) to spell out ghoti when asked to write fish. The ‘f’ sound would here have been represented by the letters gh as in laugh, the ‘i’ sound by o as in women, and the ‘sh’ sound by ti as in motion.

So now you have the means to translate the sentence with which I began: or, if you find that too tedious, you can read the answer in the footnote below:* and then decide whether Shaw’s (now largely ignored) reform could have helped humanity as much as your activities really have.

Here is a good place to look

Have you heard of the ETDE World Energy Base? The initials stand for Energy Technology Data Exchange, an entity that has been described in opaque officialese as ‘a multilateral programme managed as an Implementing Agreement of the International Energy Agency’. A clearer text calls it “the world’s largest and most comprehensive source of information on energy publications”.

The ETDEWEB is a new offshoot for UK inquirers, who can tap this internet database gratis for information on virtually any energy-related topic ( Find your country’s equivalent through the International Energy Agency, 2 rue André Pascal, 75775 Paris cedex, France.

An MPS colleague of mine has been told by AEA Technology, the company that runs the service for the UK government, that the ETDEWEB includes most articles from MPS, some in full and others in summary. But I bet that, despite its masterly illustration, ‘my’ page never gets a mention. So I can, on a sound Marxian principle, recommend the website to you: the great Hollywood character, Groucho Marx, declared that he would shun any organisation that would admit him.

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